‘Covid Dick’ Is, Sadly, Real

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It looks like we could add sexual dysfunction to the long list of unexpected and unpleasant effects of the coronavirus. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a common occurrence, and there are potential remedies that sufferers can try.

This Week Slate’s Sex Advice Podcast How to do discussed the heartbreaking story of an anonymous letter writer who suffered from what has come to be known as “covid dick”. The writer, who identified as a heterosexual man in his 30s, said he fell very ill and was hospitalized with covid-19 last July. After his release, he began to suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED). Although his symptoms improved after seeing a doctor, the man is said to have been left with a stark reminder of his ordeal. Describing himself as above average in penis size before covid-19, he said his penis has now shrunk by around 1.5 inches and has “become significantly below average”.

The podcast hosts, to their credit, also interviewed a pair of urologists who rightly noted that there is a clear trail of evidence linking covid-19 to erectile or sexual dysfunction. A study from last November, for example, find that men with covid-19 were about three times more likely to develop a new case of erectile dysfunction than those who did not catch covid-19. Some research has suggested that the risk could be almost six times higher, still others estimates are smaller, suggesting an increased risk of about 20%. A small percentage people with long covid, including women, have also reported sexual dysfunction as one of their symptoms. And sometimes erectile dysfunction can indeed lead to shrinkage, especially if it is caused by physical damage and scarring that prevents the penis from becoming erect regularly.

There are a few theories about how covid-19 can cause erectile dysfunction. The infection can eventually reach the penile tissue and directly cause damage to surrounding blood vessels. It may also be due to the infection’s indirect effects on the immune system, which can trigger damaging inflammation. (An overactive immune system and damage to blood vessels are also the main suspects behind “covid toes”.) And the experience of hospitalization in severe cases can take a toll on the body, including the penis. The risk of erectile dysfunction due to blood vessel damage is likely higher in people who already have other relevant health conditions that can affect circulation, such as type 2 diabetes. Many cases of erectile dysfunction can also be attributed to stress and anxiety, and covid survivors are unfortunately at higher risk of experiencing this as well.

That said, age is by far the biggest risk factor for erectile dysfunction, with up to 70% of men do the experience some level of it by their 70s. And while we don’t seem to have solid data on the actual prevalence of covid-related erectile dysfunction, it doesn’t seem to affect a huge proportion of men. The November study, for example, found that just under 5% of the men in the sample had been diagnosed with erectile dysfunction after covid-19.

As the hosts of Slate note, there are readily available treatments for erectile dysfunction, such as the drug sildenafil (Viagra). And even a shrunken penis can be treated or prevented with what a urologist calls “penile rehabilitation,” which may involve stretching exercises and/or penile pumping devices. So all hope is not lost if you are worried about the dreaded covid bite. And for the record, there is no proof right now of a link between ED and getting vaccinated for covid-19.

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